Thursday, September 26, 2013

No Surprise – More Changes Coming To Fat City Zoning

Three years ago, I sat in Salvatore Ristorante in Fat City and I was literally shocked at what I was reading. There before me was a proposal to radically rezone the Fat City neighborhood of Metairie and impose draconian restrictions which seemed designed to essentially close many existing businesses and limit the types of businesses which could enter Fat City in the future.

While the focus of many was on the limited hours that all alcoholic beverage outlets could sell alcohol in Fat City (the first such limitation imposed upon a neighborhood in the state of Louisiana), I believed that there were broader implications involving the rights of legally operated businesses as well as the property rights of existing landowners.

If government could come in and impose numerous restrictions and regulations on legally, licensed businesses in Fat City, what would stop government from doing that to any business anywhere?

It was also disturbing to me that, accept for one politically connected business owner, the group that formulated the broadest rezoning ordinance in Jefferson Parish’s history, the Fat City Advisory Board, didn’t have any real stake in Fat City.

I contacted Jefferson Parish District 5 Councilwoman Cynthia Sheng and asked to meet with her.

When we met, I asked the Councilwoman if there would be exemptions for any businesses, if existing businesses would be “grandfathered in” as they have been in the past ordinances, and if she was amenable to sitting down and discussing the concerns that many business owners and property owners had. They felt like they had no say in their neighborhood and would lose their investments.

Everyone wanted an improved Fat City – they just wanted to be allowed to participate in Fat City’s revitalization which, to me anyway, seemed reasonable.

I discussed some of the consequences and unintended consequences that the rezoning could have including the closing of businesses; the loss of jobs and the impact on area families; the lowering of property values; and several other issues.  

Councilwoman Sheng said that there would be no exceptions or exemptions, that they were going to do this right the first time and clean up and revitalize Fat City immediately, and that existing stakeholders had an opportunity to express their concerns at public meetings.

Councilwoman Sheng discussed proposals for a new high-rise Hotel in Fat City, the development of a shopping corridor adjacent to Lakeside Mall with covered walkways and ample parking, wider streets, a more "pedestrian-friendly" area, boutiques bustling with shoppers, restaurants filled with office workers, etc.

Of course, none of this has happened and probably never will.  

Led by Councilwoman Sheng and Sheriff Normand, I was portrayed as someone who wanted to save strip clubs and Fat City bars and nightclubs, a portrayal that many still believe.

The truth of the matter was (and is) that I don’t consume alcohol and I had never set foot in any of the Fat City Bars and clubs.

And, despite the fact that I lived in Tampa for many years, I’ve never visited a strip club in my life, let alone one in Fat City. Next to New Orleans, Tampa probably has the most strip clubs per capita in the South.

No, for me, the Fat City Rezoning Ordinance was unfair on many levels and trampled on the rights of individuals and property owners who had done nothing wrong except own and operate businesses that some people didn’t like on some of the most valuable land in Jefferson Parish.

I also thought it was disingenuous of Sheriff Normand and the Councilwoman to trot out bogus crime statistics in an attempt to obscure the real issues and garner public opinion.

During the year before the Rezoning Ordinance was proposed and the year after, there were no murders in Fat City, and certainly none due to alcohol served in Fat City. Across the river, there were (and are) dozens of murders on the West Bank, yet Sheriff Normand has made no attempts to restrict the sale of alcohol on the West Bank and Councilwoman Sheng was a part-owner in a 24-hour truck stop that had no restrictions on its sale of alcohol.

But, despite Councilwoman Sheng’s assurances, there have been exceptions and exemptions.

A grocery store, whose owner just happened to contribute to Councilwoman Sheng, was given an exemption to sell alcohol earlier than every other business. Rules were also written into the rezoning ordinance to ban any new businesses entering Fat City from selling fresh produce.

After the ordinance passed, an exception was made so a coffee shop could install a drive-thru, which was banned in the original rezoning ordinance.

Rules were crafted so different rules applied to restaurants that were located across the street from each other.

Three years after the ordinance was passed, with dozens of businesses now shuttered resulting in the unemployment of hundreds of people and the promises of mass reconstruction now completely debunked, more proposed changes are on the way for Fat City.

Sadly, the new changes come too late for Salvatore Ristorante. The longtime Fat City landmark closed last year, in part due to the onerous Rezoning Ordinance championed by Sheng and Normand.

Oh sure, Fat City does have the new coffee shop with the formerly illegal drive-thru, a couple of restaurants to replace those that closed and some trees, but we’re still waiting on the wholesale revitalization of Fat City promised by Councilwoman Sheng and Sheriff Normand.

I remember speaking at the Council Meeting where the ordinance was unanimously approved and saying that it could be 5 years, 10 years, or never before we saw the revitalization promised by Sheng and Normand.

In the Times-Picayune, Councilwoman Sheng admits that she was wrong.

Councilwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng, whose district includes Metairie's former nightlife hub and who has pushed for its overhaul, said that when she and the Fat City Advisory Board first envisioned Fat City's rezoning, they assumed developers would come in with plans for demolishing existing buildings, and build from scratch. "To date, we haven't had one property owner come in and propose total demolition," said Jefferson Parish Planning Director Terri Wilkinson. Instead, developers seek to renovate existing buildings.

Now, Councilwoman Sheng wants to change rules on signage that was previously banned, determine which businesses would be required to plant trees in front of their buildings, and allow a theater group to perform plays and show films that include nudity, and make still more changes to the Rezoning Ordinance that she said she would get right the first time.

Nudity in Fat City? I thought that was banned?

How is it ever government’s role to dictate that Business A must plant trees but Business B, possibly right next door, isn’t required to?

"We rewrote the rules for Fat City," Lee-Sheng said. "There are just a lot of little difficulties in redoing something that's been built already."

Shouldn’t that have been considered BEFORE driving dozens of companies out of business?

Attorney Pat LeBlanc, who was on the Fat City Advisory Board, discussed the learning curve involved in reshaping Fat City.

"It's really about mood," she said. "A bunch of intangibles that all of a sudden make it a place where people want to be. We're learning how to do that."

It’s a shame that the business owners like Chef Saul Bollat, the owner of now-closed Salvatore Ristorante, and the land owners who can’t sell or lease their properties now weren’t allowed to learn along with Councilwoman Sheng and Ms. LeBlanc.

I’m certain that they would have loved to participate in making Fat City “a place where people want to be.” 

I know that my friend, Chef Saul, would have loved that. Since I would still be able to get my favorite, Trout Salvatore, I would have loved that too.